Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Some Reflections

As we begin to contemplate the demise of the Probation Service as we know and love it, now seems as good a time as any to reflect on the past a little. Some of you will be aware that I'm prone to do that anyway and the following piece by a brand new blogger on the Safer Lives blog made me chuckle:-

"If you haven't seen Jim Brown's 'On Probation' blog yet, do so. The link is here and it's an excellent critique of the grumpiness involved in becoming 'practice wise'. Jim is from the 'old school', and I'm guessing that even by his own admission he's probably not the most innovative of Probation Officers. He relies on what he knows is effective and does not 'innovate' because he already knows what works with people. In new money we might call Jim's wisdom 'pro-social modeling', 'motivational interviewing' or even a 'desistance strategy'. In Jim's old shillings and pence we call this wisdom 'building a relationship' with clients (although he would undoubtedly argue that his methods are a great deal more nuanced and strategic than that). It's just that these days we've had to get scientific in explaining why and how it works." 

Spot on I'd say and indeed I haven't been one to get too scientific about things over the years. Which I think makes a nice link to Professor Paul Senior and his introduction to the latest edition of the British Journal of Community Justice which is celebrating 10 years and which he jointly edits. Happily I notice that the full edition is available for free download for the next six weeks.

Prof Senior's editorial is handily entitled 'A Decade of Reflection' and the following should give a flavour :-   

"Any review of the last 10 years would have to note that probation itself was not entirely lacking in responsibility for what happened to it when the National Probation Service was created in 2001. The loss of the voice of probation in the demise of ACOP, the simultaneous retirement of 50% of its leadership, the increasing difficulty the trade union at NAPO faced in remaining at the decision-making table, and the willingness of the new probation leadership to passively accept a series of managerialist and target-driven outputs left it vulnerable to attack. Practitioners became more office-bound and struggled to maintain their historic connections with local communities. The centre usurped the bottom-up developments of 'what works' to impose a programme of CBT delivery which was ill-conceived in its scope and execution, and threw the champagne out with the cork in allowing some of the traditional essence of probation - case management, relationships, continuity of care, pro-social modelling - to be lost in the pursuit of bureaucratic targets such as breach statistics, risk assessment completions and programme completions. This distorted organisational priorities, as all target-driven reforms have a tendency to do (and Payment by Results is no less a target-based mechanism with all the likelihood of 'gaming the system') and most disturbingly threatened the very essence of what probation is about. It is therefore somewhat surprising, though gratifying, that the resilience of probation practitioners has remained and its voice has been re-kindled to articulate a coherent, evidence-based and robust defence of probation against the precepts suggested in the government paper 'Transforming Rehabilitation'. NAPO has continued, often as a lone voice, throughout the decade with a robust media presence which has produced challenging and thought-provoking analyses of practice. The setting up of the Probation Chiefs Association (PCA) and its work alongside the Probation Association (PA) has begun to produce a more coherent and robust defence of probation, though whether it is too little too late, only the outcomes emerging from government in May 2013 on the future arrangements for the delivery of community sentences will ultimately answer that question. The promotion of a probation register and Probation Institute by the PCA may act to defend probation as an occupation and we will watch this development with interest."

As we head into the omnishambles being proposed by government, the absence of a leader and champion for the Probation Service becomes ever apparent. It prompted one reader to recall the days when figures such as Sir Graham Smith, a former chief of the Inner London Service and HMI could speak authoritatively on our behalf and one cannot but feel he must be spinning in his grave at what is currently being proposed. I found this very fulsome obituary from the Guardian and I quote from it:- 

"He was assigned to the probation service after-care unit in Borough high street, working with homeless, disturbed, and often heavily convicted offenders. A senior manager recalls him as "immensely flexible and resilient, not deterred by the unknown, intractable or the apparently insoluble". He found immense satisfaction in this setting, and continued to see offenders - and use his basic professional skills - long after he had moved to more senior positions.
Smith was 40 when he was appointed chief probation officer. He set about his new tasks with determination and energy, and worked at a punishing pace: he was never ill, never missed a probation committee meeting, and rarely any of its sub-committees. He was always well briefed, focused and clear about his aims. He made a point each week of visiting one probation office and meeting all the staff.

A dedicated and forceful leader during a period of unprecedented change, Smith was determined to raise professional standards, and establish clearer objectives. Although often involved with the wider national scene - he was a very successful chair of the Association of Chief Officers of Probation,representing the service to ministers - he was never an absentee landlord.
Of all the initiatives and developments he inspired, the one which probably gave him most satisfaction lay in the area of pre-trial services and bail information schemes.
He faced a daunting task when he moved to the Home Office shortly before the appointment of Michael Howard as home secretary in 1993. There was a dramatic change in policy - while prison had been seen as a last resort, it was now claimed that "prison works". It began to look as if probation was moving back-stage: the national training scheme for probation officers was scrapped, the probation budget was cut, and, with the proposals in the 1995 green paper, Strengthening Punishment In The Community, some began to fear that the very future of the service as an independent agency within the criminal justice system might be at risk.

Smith had a very difficult hand to play and not too many cards. He had to strengthen the credibility of the inspectorate within the Home Office, persuade the service that it had to accept greater accountability, and - most importantly - ensure that effectiveness and "what works" programmes were developed, without which he was convinced there was no future for the service.
In the absence of a national probation service, there was no national voice, and he filled that gap. He needed all his political nous and sensitivity to cope with the often conflicting demands of the politicians and the probation service. He was made CBE in 1990 and knighted in 1999."
Sign the No10 petition here. 


  1. He was the model gentleman, his life given over to public service and his general demeanour both dignified and modest.

    This number by Master B. Bragg was around when I started in probation 31 years ago. Sometimes I wonder what has changed:

    "The party that became so powerful by sinking
    Foreign boats
    Is dreaming up new promises because promises
    Win votes
    And being resolute in conference with the
    Ad man's expertise
    The majority by their silence shall pay for days like these

    The right to build communities is back behind
    Closed doors
    'tween government and people stands the right arm
    Of the law
    And shame upon the patriot when the mark of the
    Bulldog breed
    Is a family without a home and a pensioner in need

    Those whose lives are ruled by dogma are waiting
    For a sign
    The better dead than red brigade are listening on the line
    And the liberal, with a small l cries in front of the tv
    And another demonstration passes on to history
    Peace, bread, work, and freedom is the best we
    Can achieve
    And wearing badges is not enough in days like these."

    1. Thanks very much indeed for that - please keep contributing.



  2. Paul Senior hits the bullseye with his analysis of the appeasement policy of probation management. And I agree that 'wearing badges is not enough in days like these'.

    It is not always clear to me what type of probation service the romantics pine for. In the last ten years public probation has been doing its best to ape the private sector. All probation areas attacked conditions of service. And they told us that by making cuts they would protect jobs. The truth is there has been no probation management in recent years. We have simply been controlled and bullied by functionaries who follow orders and who couldn't care less about defending publicly run services.

    If wearing badges is not enough, then the next step is action. It is difficult to see anything awakening the apolitical and apathetic workforce. They can't even bother to vote in internal elections and the turnout on pensions was pathetic. There was a sense that pensions would be a red line and that the unionised workforce would show solidarity – but many went to work instead. Could not afford to lose a day's pay. What shortsightedness when you consider the decline in real earnings over the past few years.

    But in probation company one must be polite on the subject of strike action, as some run for cover and principles normally lacking in their day job come teeming out to explain why 'in principle' they are opposed to going out on strike. Principles should be ditched when considering strike action – It should turn on pragmatic considerations of effectiveness.

    If you are a politician looking through the probation window you see a passive workforce that is easy to manipulate. A few activists protest and lobby, but the numbers are numerically small. What a shame that the workforce as a whole did not join earlier protests and lobbying – maybe we could have put an end to the offender management bill. Probation is a soft touch for political change, with its pusillanimous management and sheep-like workforce. It's a wonder the politicians didn't go in for the kill sooner...

    1. Strike action has never sat comfortably with Probation and the government will be aware of this. It's never sat comfortably with me - but what's the alternative? Roll over like a good professional and just take it?

      No. It's an ideological struggle and this personal blog is geared up to contribute to trying to defeat these pernicious plans of Chris Grayling's. Thanks a lot for contributing and please feel free to say more over the coming months.



  3. So Jim I find myself drawn to comment again.

    Today I am pondering mentors. This was triggered by a recent session with a vulnerable and isolated individual on licence with multi-agency involvement.

    This person has been approached to do some voluntry work by another agency. Whilst I truely believe mentoring can be hugely beneficial in delievering a number of positives such as increasing confidence, self esteem and developing skills. If ex-offenders are to be recruited then what safeguards will be in place to ensure that it is the appropriate time in their recovery/rehabilitation to take the demands of this role which potentially could do more damage than good. The information I have read suggests there will be a shortage of trained mentors so what then do we start expanding the pool from which to recruit including people that are not ready or may not cope with the stresses and emotional impact this role may bring. Grayling has indicated that he oes not see the point in lengthly training for as apparently this would defeat the object. Support is going to be key.

    Obviously CRB checks would not be made so could we end up for example with sex offenders mentoring vulnerable individuals with children?, because they have not re-offended for a year although research suggests that the re-offending cycle is longer (ave 7 years). How would this be checked etc. How long does one have to be reformed for before they can be considered?. Will we have a situation that we have large numbers of under-checked individuals?. Whilst I am sure there will be many whom do go on to lead a law-abiding lifestyle what about the current rate of re-offending what does this tell us about the potential for success rateof mentors if they are not recruited properly and in a hurry to fill numbers?

    Obviously, I only have my clients say so and my many wandering thoughts but this does raise questions about how this can be safely and effectively managed. I guess all will be come clear in time when at the last minute these issues spring up and rapid solutions have to be found.

    1. I think most of us have pretty much the same concerns as you have outlined. There have always been a few clients where you've thought they could be a positive influence upon others, but I agree with you the numbers are small and as you say it's an idea not without risk. They also require some training and on-going support and supervision.

      The more I think about it all, the more I think Grayling and his civil servants really don't understand what's involved. It's the classic situation where having a bit of knowledge of a subject can cause a great deal of harm.

      It's obvious he's been impressed by visiting mentoring schemes and they've 'bulled up' the idea to him. Like all politicians he's latched onto what he thinks is a cheap and simple 'solution', but the only trouble is that the 'problem' is much more complicated and varied than he presently appreciates.

      There has got to be investigation and analysis of each potential mentor's criminal background surely? If not, we really are in a hand cart bound for hell! But then this whole business has all the makings of an omnishambles on an epic scale and I really don't share your possibly sarcastic point that "all will be come clear in time when at the last minute these issues spring up and rapid solutions have to be found." I think we are fairly certain it won't!

      Thanks and keep the contributions coming.